Jimmy Webb on Glen Campbell: 'The American Beatle Has Passed'

Songwriter Webb penned some of Campbell's best-known hits, including "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix"

Songwriter Jimmy Webb remembers Glen Campbell, who died August 8th at 81. Credit: Angela Weiss/Getty Images For The Open Hearts Foundation

In 1961, 14-year-old aspiring writer Jimmy Webb was inspired by music and girls. His father, in an effort to curb those distractions, arranged a job for the young dreamer from Laverne, Oklahoma, plowing wheat fields for a local farmer. One day, while working and listening to the pop music on his green plastic transistor radio that hung from the tractor's umbrella, he heard a song called "Turn Around, Look at Me," sung by a young artist named Glen Campbell. The effect the song had on him was immediate. 

"I had just heard the most beautiful record I ever heard in my young life: song, singer and arrangement in perfect balance," Webb recalled in his memoir, The Cake and the Rain. Unfortunately, in his ecstasy, he had also lost control of the tractor and plow, destroying it and the flower beds planted by the farmer's wife. That night, Jimmy Webb kneeled by his bedside and prayed that he would one day be able to write a song half as good as the one he had heard earlier. He added an extra prayer asking to one day have Glen Campbell record one of his songs. That day came in 1967, when Campbell released "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

The number and quality of Webb's songs recorded by Campbell during his lifetime are almost unparalleled. "Phoenix" was followed by "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "Where's the Playground, Susie" and many more, right up to the last song on the final album of Campbell's lifetime, "Adiós," released in June. But the friendship the two shared for more than five decades was the greater gift Webb received as a result of that answered prayer. 

When Campbell died August 8th from Alzheimer's disease, Webb posted a heartfelt remembrance on Facebook, writing in part: "Well, that moment has come that we have known was an inevitable certainty and yet stings like a sudden catastrophe. Let the world note that a great American influence on pop music, the American Beatle, the secret link between so many artists and records that we can only marvel, has passed and cannot be replaced. He was bountiful. His was a world of gifts freely exchanged: Roger Miller stories, songs from the best writers, an old Merle Haggard record or a pocket knife."

In the post Webb touches on Campbell's consummate musicianship, noting his inspiration on the development of the Beach Boys' sound (as a key member of the famed "Wrecking Crew," the group of L.A. studio players who backed countless influential recordings throughout the Sixties and Seventies) and his love for everything from the Righteous Brothers to Flatt & Scruggs. He also observes that the "'raison d'etre' for every Glen Campbell show was to bring every suffering soul within the sound of his voice up a peg or two. Leave 'em laughin'. Leave them feeling just a little tad better about themselves; even though he might have to make them cry a couple of times to get 'em there. What a majestically graceful and kind, top rate performer was Glen on his worst night!"

In an interview earlier this year, Webb told Rolling Stone Country, "I believe that Glen was to American music what the Beatles were to British music. I'm not talking about my songs, I'm talking about the countless records that he played on, including 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,' 'Viva Las Vegas,' 'Johnny Angel,' 'Along Comes Mary,' records with the Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas and Papas' records. He played with all kinds of genres, with different instrumentation and different styles. If it was a just and righteous world, Glen would be credited as one of the great, seminal influences of all time. He was a secret weapon in the armory of Sixties record producers."


Adding that many of Campbell's performances on record have yet to be discovered because he was almost never identified by name on the LP sleeves, Webb recalled, "When we were doing the tribute show, 'The Glen Campbell Years,' a friend of mine found Glen on a Kingston Trio record playing banjo and singing high harmony. It's definitely him. Every day, somebody finds something that Glen played on. He belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Webb said that Campbell never lost his resolve, even when he received his diagnosis in 2011. "He said, 'Well, I ain't done yet.' One in a million people would say that. Most people would be crushed and try to figure out what they're going to do, but he just said, 'I'm not done. I'm gonna play somethin'.' He was really an extraordinary character."